On our second day in San Diego, Lucas and I went to SeaWorld. Since I was dragging Luke into the California dessert the following day for a couple nights of camping (the last time he slept in a tent was 1997), I agreed to follow him on his adventure into an aquatic theme park with supposed educational and conservation pretenses. I buried my misgivings, determined to have fun. By the end of the day however, I was sad, anxious and fairly sickened by what I saw: large, magnificent, intelligent sea creatures jailed in tiny tanks, forced to interact with humans and perform like circus animals. There was no sense of awe, there was no dignity for these creatures, and the spectacle of the dolphin and whale shows was distasteful and vapid, devoid of any educational or environmental relevance.
After returning home, I researched SeaWorld and its treatment of the animals within its many parks. I was truly shocked at what I found. Please go read the following articles originally published in Outside Magazine, both written by Tim Zimmerman: “The Killer in the Pool” and “Blood in the Water.” He’s also involved in a new documentary still making the independent film festival circuits, Blackfish. I can’t wait to see it. Reminiscent of The Cove, Blackfish is already affecting SeaWorld’s IPO and has SeaWorld’s PR machine running overtime. Here’s the trailer for Blackfish:
That said, here’s documentation of my experience at SeaWorld.
At 10:30AM, Lucas swam with the dolphins. I’m fairly certain it was the highlight of his year. I don’t believe that any of these trainers have any malicious intent working with dolphins; it’s clear that they love them. The dolphins also seem very engaged while interacting with people. However, all the dolphins are covered in scars and scrapes, even the ones that were captive born.
There were two different groups in the pools, and each group met several different dolphins. The SeaWorld trainer for Luke’s group was decidedly more educational in her approach to the encounter. She talked about the history of each animal, their diet, anatomy, and individual personality. The other trainer had the animals go through a barrage of interactive tricks. At one point, one of the dolphins decided to stop following any directions from staff and freely swam around the pool, circling the two groups before finally being brought back under control by another trainer. That dolphin was then asked to leave the pool.
The next interactive exhibit lined up was the Penguin Encounter. This experience felt like the most sincere and authentic part of the park. I mean, you can’t really train penguins to do silly shit, can you? The caretakers were visibly involved in these birds’ lives. In fact, it felt more like a zoo than a park. This was the only educational experience I had at the park. We had the opportunity to meet a four month old gentoo penguin who was very sociable and expressive. We then visited the penguin enclosure, a behind-the-scenes mini-tour. The penguins were obviously well cared for and fed, though the space felt cramped.
A view from the penguin exhibit on the other side of the glass.
The dolphin and whale shows followed, leaving a terrible and lasting impression. As a child, I visited Marineland once, in Ontario, CA. I remember the Killer Whale show, and I remember at least learning about the whales as they performed– the trainers wore headsets and talked all the way through the show. Here’s a vintage 1980s commercial for the park. The jingle will stick in your head for days:
The spectacle that SeaWorld produces now is somewhere between Cirque Du Soleil, bad community theater, and Disney princess narratives. The was absolutely nothing redeeming about the show. I felt sad and somewhat confused after it was over.
As confused and sad as I felt after leaving the alternate universe of the dolphin show, I felt heartsick after watching the orcas. Although this show, entitled “One Ocean” tried to outline SeaWorld’s conservation efforts for wild whales and captive breeding programs for park whales, I immediately recognized it for what it was: propagandist drivel. The one male whale in the tank exhibited the classic collapsed dorsal fin, found almost exclusively in captive orcas. These whales perform twice daily in tiny pools.
After reading the two articles I listed above, I learned the anxious and somewhat psychotic activities these whales show in captivity: teeth grating on underwater gates resulting in exposed nerves, floating and sinking repeatedly in boredom, aggressive behavior toward other whales, and rapid, frustrated circle swimming around the perimeter of their tanks. In the wild, Orcas travel several hundred miles each week in search of food.
In closing, I encourage you to visit Voice Of The Orcas, a portal into the anti-captivity movement. We’ve clearly learned all we can from keeping orcas captive. It’s time to study them in the wild. Let’s not propagate the subjugation of these intelligent creatures for capitalistic gain and simplistic entertainment.